Celtic Illumination, part 31, The devil, Mick Mc Manus and the hairy hand
When I say that tradition was very important at Violent Hell I’m not referring to the simple act of attending that school or playing and excelling at certain sports or academic subjects. No. When I say tradition I mean the nasty tricks that the older boys played on the younger ones, the unwritten rules and codes that were passed down from generation to generation. And as a prospective Master Candle Maker I was to be shown them all
When I arrived at the school, on a Sunday afternoon, I was taken to my dormitory. It was known as ‘the top dorm’, why, because it was at the top of the school. This was he dormitory for the first years, the new boys. It was a barn of a room, bare light bulbs, no carpets and no curtains. Beds were separated into groups of three or four by rows of lockers and at each end of the dorm was a door.
By the main entrance door were two single bedrooms where the senior prefect and his deputy lived. At the far end of the dorm was another door which we were not allowed to use as a priest lived there and he didn’t like being disturbed. Everything was regimented, so on our first night at school we were held back in the chapel, after night prayers, by the dean. This was a new dean the priest I knew, Father Byrne, the nice man I cleaned chickens out with was gone and replaced with a chain smoking priest from Newry, the Wee Scut.
He spoke to us in the chapel and then took us to the refectory for milk and biscuits, the first and last time this would ever happen while at Violent Hell. Then we were ordered to go to our dorm. That was the only night for a first year that they had a clear and unopposed route to their dormitory. We followed our instructions and with jammies on got into out beds. The senior boy came, head boy, senior prefect whatever you like to call him. He welcomed us to the school and then explained that while first years he would protect us. I began to wonder about an uncle who had died while at Violent Hell. I had always been told that he had died by picking a spot on his head.
The head boy then turned out the lights and with the light from the small landing pouring in around him he continued to talk. He pointed to a large plaster statue of Our Lady that was above the main door into the dorm. The statue was missing a hand. He then began to explain why the hand was missing.
One night he said, very much in the manner of that great Irish comedian Dave Allen, One night the Devil himself came into the dorm to see if there were any wee souls that he could take back to Hell with him. Now this was an Irish Catholic boarding school in the late 1960’s so you can bet that what he was telling us we found quite believable. He explained that the Devil picked on one poor wee boy and the statue came to life. Our Lady and the Devil fought, and again for us it was easy to imagine Our Lady in her long flowing robes going for two falls and a submission with the Devil like Mick McManus and Big Daddy on a Saturday afternoon.
Our Lady won the fight, saved the wee boy and sent the Devil packing but she lost a hand during the encounter and now the hand, a hairy hand, came back to the dorm and would sniff out little souls to take back to Hell. He would then wish us a goodnight and close the door.
As you may imagine, thirty little pairs of eyes peered into the darkness. The sheets and blankets would be pulled up to cover as much of our body as possible, I think that would have been the ‘if I can’t see him he can’t see me’ principle. This is when a noise rang out. A snap, somewhere in the distance. We would all strain to listen trying to determine what it was. Then there would be another noise followed by another. After a sufficient number of these cracks we began to understand what it was. Hoof beats. Now we could see the Devil as a great hairy, hooved, horned, beast snorting and panting as he pulled himself up the stairs to our dorm.
The door burst open and in came the beast. We could hear its laboured snorting and we each prayed to God that he wouldn’t pick me.
Now the light flicked on in the dorm and the priest who lived at the other end came in. There was a clattering of footsteps of the senior boys running away from the other door but standing somewhat bewildered at the main door of our dorm was a cow from the school farm.